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Christians Fret as Muhammad’s Family Comes Under Fire

Aisha (L), at the Battle of the Camel

Founding fathers are often sacred, but not sacrosanct.

In recent years, Americans have wrestled with the slave-owning legacies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Confederate statues have been toppled, ideologically refighting for some the Civil War. Pilgrims have become pillagers; Plymouth Rock equated with imperialism.

Muslims are having a similar moment.

Their prophet is called a pedophile. Their miracles, a myth. Successors to Muhammad are compared to ISIS. And it is not just Islam’s historic men. Two current global controversies concern two of the faith’s celebrated founding females: Aisha and Fatimah.

The International Union for Muslim Scholars has renewed its call for an international ban on insulting religions. And from India to England, Muslims have poured into the streets this month in protest.

Christians—whether leading such polemics or suffering under blasphemy accusations—have often been embroiled in such Muslim controversies. These latest episodes, many are relieved, are centered elsewhere.

“But Christians in both India and Pakistan are quite frightened,” said Juliet Chowdhry, a trustee for the British Asian Christian Association. “It is inevitable that as a vulnerable religious minority that is incorrectly perceived to be in league with the West, Christians will find themselves caught up in the anger.”

Thus they are keeping silent, said a Christian leader in Pakistan who—illustrating the point—requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.

Last month [May 26], a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India cited Aisha, often considered the favorite wife of Muhammad. Appearing on a talk show with Muslims, the Hindu official responded passionately when chided about a disputed temple.

Her prime minister, Narendra Modi, has led India in the direction of Hindu nationalism, stoking tensions with its 15 percent Muslim community. Though always a minority religion there, Islam ruled the subcontinent for centuries, with some ancient temples turned into mosques.

In one location, shivling idols were allegedly discovered last month. The Muslim talk show guests said no, their shape—holy to Hindus in honor of Shiva—resembled instead a fountain. The panel then descended into a heated discussion over the mocking of gods and goddesses.

“Should I start mocking claims of flying horses … and having sex with [Aisha] when she turned nine?” exclaimed the official. “Should I start saying all these things that are mentioned in your scriptures?”

Buraq is the name of the winged animal mentioned in Islamic tradition as carrying Muhammad on a night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. Similar traditions quote Aisha on her tender age at the time her marriage was consummated, while some more contemporary scholars cite evidence to argue she was in her teens.

At least 15 majority-Muslim nations—led by those in the Arabian Gulf—have condemned India, which in turn censured both the BJP spokesperson and another offending official. The grand mufti of Oman called the comments a “war on all Muslims,” while Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque described them as “real terrorism.”

Muhammad was 53 when he married Aisha, and Islamic sources indicate a happy existence together. Aisha grew up to become a scholar and a military leader, often honored by modern day Muslims as an example of feminist egalitarianism.

But she is also a center of controversy—resurrected in a recent British film.

After the death of Muhammad, a faction of Muslims believed leadership should remain in the bloodline of the prophet. Known as Shiites, this sect believes the caliphate was promised to Ali, the prophet’s nephew and husband to his daughter, Fatimah. About 10–15 percent of Muslims are Shiites, with the great majority residing in Iran, Iraq, India, and Pakistan.

Sunnis, the majority sect, believe Muhammad did not designate a successor. The community then met to elect one, a caliph, and the first three were chosen from among Muhammad’s closest companions. Ali became the fourth caliph, but in a clash known as the Battle of the Camel, Aisha rode the Arabian dromedary in a rebellion against him.

The Lady of Heaven builds its story around Fatimah, who Muslims esteem as akin to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In a poignant introductory scene, Fatimah is introduced as the first victim of terrorism, paralleled as an elderly woman comforts an Iraqi child whose mother was killed by ISIS. Winning awards for visual effects, the $15 million partisan film relates a Shiite perspective that the famed daughter of Muhammad died in childbirth—due to injuries suffered earlier in a raid ordered by his first successor.

Sunni orthodoxy honors the first four caliphs as “righteous.” Thereafter the community descended into civil war, with Ali and Fatimah’s children on the losing end. Hussain, the younger of two sons, was killed in battle, and his commemoration by Shiites is often accompanied by mourning and ritual self-flagellation.

Though Shiite-dominated, Iran banned the film as divisive to the Muslim community, while Pakistan, Egypt’s al-Azhar, and the Muslim Council of Britain all condemned it also. Following large-scale Sunni protests, most UK cinemas canceled upcoming screenings. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film’s approval rating…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on June 24, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Should Christians Quote Muhammad?

This article was first published in the January print edition of Christianity Today.

Christians Quote Muhammad

Christians breathed a sigh of relief last October when Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five on death row, of blasphemy charges against Islam. What many might not have noticed was the Islamic rationale.

Whether or not she spoke against Muhammad, Bibi was insulted first as a Christian, wrote the judge. And on this, the Qur‘an is clear: Do not insult those that invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge.

The verdict also quoted Islam’s prophet himself: “Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights … I will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.”

And finally, it referenced an ancient treaty that Muhammad signed with the monks of Mount Sinai: “Christians are my citizens, and by God, I hold out against anything that displeases them.… No one of the Muslims is to disobey this covenant till the Last Day.”

Today it can seem like Muslims violate this covenant the world over. But does the Bibi decision validate those who insist that Islam rightly practiced is a religion of peace? And should Christians join Muslims to share verses that comprise the Islamic case for religious freedom?

CT surveyed more than a dozen evangelical experts engaged with Muslims or scholarship on Islam who reflected on three key questions when considering interpretations of Islam that favor religious freedom.

[These questions are: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it enough?]

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

Also: click here to read my related Christianity Today article about The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, the book which describes the Sinai treaty mentioned above, and others.

Finally, here is a sidebar from the Should Christians Quote Muhammad article, identifying sources in the Islamic tradition on which the evangelical scholars reflected.

Quranic verses regarding Christians:

• Q5:82 – You will find the nearest of them in affection to the believers those who say, “We are Christians.” That is because among them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant.

• Q2:62 – Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans those who believed in Allah and the Last Day and did righteousness—will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve.

• Q22:40 – And were it not that Allah checks the people, some by means of others, there would have been demolished monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of Allah is much mentioned.

• Q29:46 – And do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best.

• Q2:256 – There shall be no compulsion in religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong.

Texts used in Supreme Court of Pakistan acquittal of Asia Bibi:

• Christians are my citizens, and by God, I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them … The Muslims are to fight for them … Their churches are to be respected. No one of the Muslims is to disobey this covenant till the Last Day (Covenant with the Monks of Mount Sinai)

• “Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I [Prophet Muhammad] will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.” (Abu Dawud)

• Q6:108 – “And do not insult those they invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge. Thus We have made pleasing to every community their deeds. Then to their Lord is their return, and He will inform them about what they used to do.”


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Covenantal Theology: Can Muhammad’s Ancient Promise Inspire Muslim-Christian Peace Today?

Supreme Court of Pakistan

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on December 21.

Christians esteem the biblical progression of covenants—Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic—finalized by Jesus as he ushered in the New.

But for the sake of religious freedom in the Muslim world, should they embrace a further covenant: Muhammadian?

Recent scholarship suggests the potential promise, newly fulfilled in Pakistan.

After eight long years on death row, Asia Bibi was acquitted of blasphemy by the Muslim nation’s Supreme Court in late October. The Christian mother of five had been sentenced for uttering contempt for Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, while attempting to drink water from a well.

The three-judge panel ruled that contradictions in accuser testimony and Bibi’s forced confession by a local cleric rendered the charges invalid. But in the official court document, one justice went as far as to partially base his judgement on how Bibi’s accusers violated an ancient covenant of Muhammad to the Christian monks of Mount Sinai—“eternal and universal … not limited to [them] alone.”

“Blasphemy is a serious offense,” wrote judge Asif Khosa, “but the insult of the appellant’s religion … was also not short of being blasphemous.”

He referenced a 2013 book by John Morrow, a Canadian convert to Islam. The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World is an academic study of six treaties commanding the kind treatment of Christians, reportedly dated to the seventh century.

Each similar in scope, they command Muslims not to attack peaceful Christian communities, to aid in the construction and repair of churches, and even to allow self-regulation of tax payments.

It is “nothing short of providential,” Morrow wrote, that they have been “rediscovered” at a time of widespread Islamist violence against the Christians of the Middle East.

“For Muslims, it means a wake-up call, an awareness that they have deviated from the Islamic tradition,” Morrow told Patheos, a popular religion and spirituality website.

“[It] requires that Muslims not only tolerate Christians, but love them as their brothers and sisters.”

This resonates with…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Atheism and Insult

Flag Cross Quran


Words injure. Ideas have consequences. Give Egypt wisdom and strength of character to tread righteously in irreligious waters.

For Charlie Hebdo insists on staying in the headlines. The head of the Azhar called for Muhammad cartoons to be ignored, while a pro-Brotherhood scholar called for demonstrations and international blasphemy laws. Many expressed anger and warned of violent reactions, even as they condemned them.

And perhaps similarly, Egypt jailed a local citizen for being an atheist. He was harassed in his home town and complained to the police, but instead wound up arrested. His father testified against him, and his incarceration will last three years. He is not the only blasphemer in prison, and others are on trial.

God, all rights come with responsibility, and the law regulates limitations. Do you have an opinion on where to draw the line?

Moreover, do you wish mankind to police your honor?

Help Egypt to process these questions, God, protecting good, preserving liberty, for individual and society alike.

Give courage to speak a rebuke. Give humility to win the recipient. Give patience to bear an insult. Give confidence to respond in love.

Give the same to Egypt’s atheists, as to those offended by them. Guide both to what is true and right. Guide all in defining their place.

You are the word, God, how you respond when injured? You are the idea, from which all consequences follow. Help Egypt imitate your character, and in you find strength.



Salafi Muslims and American Thanksgiving

Salafi Thanksgiving

From Christianity Today, a very interesting article about an evangelical historian who challenges the received traditions of the Puritans:

In 1623, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford proclaimed the first Thanksgiving. “The great Father,” he declared, “has given us this year an abundant harvest…and granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.” He directed the Pilgrims to gather that November, “the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Plymouth Rock, there to listen to ye Pastor and render Thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all his blessings.”

Except Bradford didn’t write that. Someone—we don’t know who—fabricated this “proclamation” in the late 20th century.

The author takes note of how American Christians are at a bit of a crisis point concerning their national history:

American evangelicals seem to have reached a crisis point over the study of history, especially the history of the American founding. For decades, many evangelicals have turned to popular history writers who have presented America, especially of the colonial and Revolutionary era, as a straightforwardly Christian nation.

But take the popular belief that the pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom. It is not wrong, he argues, but subject to misinterpretation:

He demonstrates that the quest for “religious freedom,” in the modern sense, did not really animate the Pilgrims. Yes, they wanted to find a place where they could worship God according to Scripture and the dictates of conscience. But they had already discovered those conditions in Holland, where a number of English dissenters had gone in the early 1600s.

The most pressing concern that led the Plymouth Separatists to leave Holland was that they found the Netherlands “a hard place to maintain their English identity and an even harder place to make a living.” They did not worry so much about religious persecution (at least not since they left England), but about “spiritual danger and decline.” They worried about the cultural corruption they saw around them in foreign Dutch culture, and struggled to find profitable employment that could nourish their common identity. America seemed to offer both better opportunity and a place to preserve their sense of covenanted community.

And, just to throw in one ugly incident:

We should remember, McKenzie cautions, than not long after the first Thanksgiving—which was indeed a peaceful, if tense meal between the English and their Wampanoag neighbors—the Pilgrims launched a preemptive assault on local Massachusetts Indians that resulted in violence and bitter resentments. The English even placed the severed head of one Native American on a pike outside their fort. Recalling this is telling the truth, not revisionist history.

What does any of this have to do with Salafi Muslims? Nothing at all, except by way of similarity.

The word ‘Salaf’ in Arabic means ‘forefathers’, and Salafi Muslims honor in particular the first three generations of Muslims. This was the golden age of Islam, when the community lived the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. In all current religious interpretation – even in political and cultural matters – Salafis believe Muslims should study this period and apply its lessons accordingly to modern life.

Many Muslims honor this heritage without calling for the same level of imitation as Salafis. But most all of the faithful prefer not to open this history of these forefathers to questioning.

There are two issues at stake. The ancient challenge was given by Shia Muslims who said the community went wrong right after the death of Muhammad. Leadership, they say, should have been passed to Ali, within family lines. It was only the political scheming of these forefathers that prevented his immediate succession, and it was their further scheming that resulted in the loss of his role as caliph.

Sunni Muslims were the political and numerical victors of early Muslim in-fighting. But the Shia challenge contributed to the sanctification of these early generations who established the caliphate. They were also the assemblers of Muhammad’s sunna, his words and deeds not found in the Qur’an, so demonstrating their honesty was paramount. Just as Muslims find it terribly difficult to accept a word spoken against Muhammad, so do Salafi Muslims, and many beside, take offense if the Companions of Muhammad are questioned.

The modern challenge questions this sacred history as well. Using mostly Muslim sources, increasing numbers of historians are dissembling the received traditions about the development of the early Muslim communities. And similar to scholars who try to trace the human origins of the Bible, some also find other than divine influences in the Qur’an. The consequences can be dire for those engaged in revisionist history, or, let historians judge, telling the truth.

History, of course, is often deeply contested. Defining the past is a good way of determining the future.

For American Christians, revisiting the history of Thanksgiving is not nearly as threatening as the accusation that the Trinity was invented at the Council of Nicea, for example. But for a people confident in the idea that God has blessed America, there is often the implicit assumption that he has done so – from his sovereign purposes, of course – but also because of the Christian faithfulness of America’s founders. There is also often the modern application, with political overtones, that if America returns to her Christian heritage God’s blessing will come again.

It may well. ‘If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land,’ God said to Israel. Americans Christians consider themselves part of the family of God, his people. Should the land of America be considered a possible heir to this promise?

Either way, both American Christians and Salafis must face up to any possible ‘fabrications’ of their history. If this is a crisis point for evangelicals, it is hardly a blip on the radar for Salafis. But both groups have invested heavily in the sacred narrative of their secular traditions. As the author closes in his article:

The temptation toward idol-making seems much more pressing with the titans of America’s national history, those who line the mall in Washington, D.C. Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington: These are the ones that, despite limited evidence of orthodoxy, many of us want—or need—to be evangelical Christians, just like us. We desperately need help to know how to think about those Founders.

Similarly, what will Salafis do with the four ‘rightly guided caliphs’ – Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, and Ali? There were fine Muslims, surely, but what does it say that three of them were killed? What of other leaders who opposed Muhammad until the near-end, and then switched sides? Muslims are not ignorant of these controversies; in fact, Salafis study them diligently. But no one should go beyond the limits of the historic evaluation given to the Companions of Muhammad; no one should tar their reputation.

I must stop short of proscription for either community. This post began as an attempt to draw parallels between two communities not often associated together. But I am a historian of neither narrative, so I dare not make pronouncements that can be easily countered by the studied. Neither am I a theologian, certainly not of Islam to make cavalier statements about how to interpret God in their history.

But I hold as a conviction that fidelity to God requires fidelity to truth, come what may. The shaping of pious myths may aid in the development of social and cultural faith, but they are acts, ultimately, of manipulators. ‘God will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.’

He may take a long time in doing so, but this Thanksgiving, let us be thankful that God will guide us into all truth.

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Islam and Europe: Polemics or Engagement?

Swiss Islam

Polemics are poison to interfaith relations. Unfortunately the salve of dialogue and cooperation often fails to make as wide an impression, leaving wary religious communities under the assumption of mutual opposition. Polemics reduces ambiguity and nuance, allowing the non-specialist citizen to appreciate his or her own heritage when challenged by ideologies of a foreign ‘other’. Yet this reduction is achieved in a manner often repulsive to the ‘other’, no matter how much it may be reflective of part of the ideology. The specialist in interfaith relations deals with the complexity, but the audience is often limited. By speaking to the street the polemicist simultaneously comforts and infuriates.

This is very much the situation currently governing the Mediterranean world. Arab Muslims widely believe Europe is dominated by ‘Islamophobia’ – a rejectionist attitude which dismisses their faith. For example, Johannes Jansen, whom I wrote about here concerning his book, ‘Religious Roots of Muslim Violence’, writes concerning their prophet:

Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, may have been born around 570 AD in Mecca and if he existed, he died in Medina around 632 (italics mine).

Questions of historicity in the academic world are proper and legitimate, but Jansen, though a scholar, writes popularly. After first undermining the religion of Islam at its source, he reinforces its oppositional nature through irresponsible generalization:

Also printed testimonies from within the Muslim world abundantly illustrate that in general Muslims (with individual exceptions, one hopes) distrust and hate the West. They see the West as an enemy, and it is their religious background that encourages such judgements.

Critique of such ideas may be found elsewhere, but suffice it to say that when attitudes such as these reach the shores of North Africa and the Middle East, let alone communities of Muslims resident in Europe, interfaith coexistence and cooperation receives a setback.

Jan Slomp
Jan Slomp

This is why the example of European Christian leaders necessitates wider dissemination, especially as concerns their response toward the Muslim minorities in their midst. Jan Slomp is a member of the Advisory Editorial Board of the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, and together with Hans Voecking summarized the history of this interaction. This article is a summary of their essay, ‘The Churches and Islam in Europe’, published in Studies in Interreligious Dialogue, vol. 21, 2011.

Worthy to note is that Christian leaders did not consider the wave of Muslim immigration to be a religious issue at all, in the beginning. Instead, it was a socio-economic challenge, and churches organized to assist. In 1964 Protestant and Orthodox churches founded the Committee for Migrant Workers in Europe, while Roman Catholics formed the International Catholic Migration Committee shortly thereafter. Though these services had a religious subsection, the churches deliberately put priority on service and love before issues of doctrine and belief. They believed the Gospel called them to do so.

It soon became clear to both groups, however, that the presence of Muslim immigrants in particular placed challenges in front of local Christian congregations. In 1976 Christian leaders organized a conference to directly consider the needs of Muslim communities in Europe along with those of traditional Christians vis-à-vis their new neighbors. Ali Merad, an Algerian professor resident in France detailed the Muslim position. They needed in particular:

  • Proper housing
  • Job security
  • Children’s schooling
  • Religious education in public schools
  • Facilities to worship and practice Islamic festivals

Merad argued that by fulfilling these needs the Muslim world would receive a positive view of Christianity and promote reconciliation between Christian Europe and the Muslim Third World. Indigenous Arab Christians, especially, would be indispensable mediators between East and West.

Slomp relates that thirty-five years later, to a large degree, these needs have been largely addressed. Yet the conference also spelled out principles to be implemented in the churches, including:

  • Respect for Muslims requires greater knowledge of their religion
  • Islam and Christianity to be presented correctly
  • Churches establish offices to meet with Muslim representatives

In 1978 Christian leaders recognized many churches were still slow to relate to their Muslim neighbors in witness and service, and thus another conference was held. It tasked three committees to produce reports through which to guide Christian response. The first concerned working together with Muslims to protect and further their basic human rights as a minority community. The second envisioned positive cooperation between the two faiths in confronting secularism as a dominant ideology. The third, however, dealt with theological questions, and failed to reach consensus.

The difficulty in theology led Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox leaders to establish a new organization in 1979, the Consultative Committee on Islam in Europe. A conference held was again motivated to encourage witness and service to Muslim neighbors, but emphasized this was especially in light of their religious freedom and the necessity of social integration. Work was established to create literature for local churches to educate properly about Islam, as well as to highlight instances in which Muslims suffered discrimination. Issues of theology, however, continued to be contentious.

Most Christian leaders in these meetings were challenging themselves to respond positively to the message of Islam as a partner in monotheism. Though keen not to water down the distinctives of Christian theology, many urged Muhammad to be accepted as a prophet within the continuing Old Testament tradition. Leaders emphasized common positions on ethics and urged cooperation in promoting spirituality. Hope was expressed that Muslims might continue to honor Jesus and be attracted to him, within an eschatological position where God would ‘restore all things (also all things Islamic transformed by him) in heaven and on earth into a unity in Christ’.

Such positions made many local churches uncomfortable, as they felt Islam was being made too akin to Christianity, which might lower the barriers for conversion away from the faith. No firm positions were taken, but in 1987 the Islam in Europe Committee was formed between Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants to improve Islamic studies in all seminaries and theological faculties in Europe for the benefit of ordinary congregations, among others, by inviting Muslim teachers. In particular they wished to move beyond studies of comparative religion by allowing space for Quranic studies into the curriculum for Biblical studies, by which Islam might integrate into every aspect of theological inquiry.

However much the committee influenced local congregations, it was disbanded in 2009 in light of two encouraging developments. First, it was noticed that many churches by this time had incorporated an Islam desk to engage their congregants and communities. Second, the formal work of local churches in regional conferences was honored, as local leaders gathered to consult and exchange experiences. Across the continent churches had become aware of the peculiarities of these now Muslim citizens, and were engaging with them for the common good.

The differences in approach are apparent. Polemicists begin by viewing these newcomers to Europe as a religious other, make generalizations about their faith, emphasize points of departure, and establish a foundation of fear and opposition. While undoubtedly Christian people have engaged in such polemics, the Christian leadership of Europe has taken a different approach. They began by serving the humanity of these immigrants, subsequently recognizing the implications of their religious differences. Yet instead of opposition they sought understanding, integration, support for human rights, and even pushed the boundaries of Christian theology to find common ground.

In brief evaluation, if there were faults in the efforts of Christian leaders, it lies in the level of popular engagement. Polemicists have enough academic study to be accredited as experts, but their strength lies in simplification and mass appeal. Their message is also easily translatable through the media. European Christian leaders, on the other hand, hosted conferences, formed committees, and issued recommendations. These are not the avenues to reach the common man. Furthermore, in accepting the challenge to engage theology with Islam, they threatened the simple faith of the local believer. This can well aid the polemicist who reinforces popular belief through fear, now also of ‘compromising’ leadership.

Yet these Christian leaders are no ivory tower theoreticians. Each and every step was calculated to form wide councils of all denominational leadership, with an eye toward speaking toward the common man. Such broad consultation and engagement is done to build a network that can withstand media-driven and politicized polemicists. They printed literature and nurtured regional networks of pastors and priests. They assured the predominant message from the pulpit was one of engagement and respect. This is slow work which does not command attention. Yet despite the popularity of polemicists, it was noted that nearly all Muslim essential needs as a minority community have been met. Where this is lacking, especially as regards full integration, there may be indication the Christian message has fallen on the deaf ears of a secular population still Christian in heritage. This is a fertile ground for polemicism.

Unfortunately, there are polemicists in the Muslim world also. Despite the successes of Christian leaders in welcoming the Muslim ‘other’, many are quick to highlight Jansen or others as typical of a dominant European rejectionism. Yet the reasoned attitude in the Muslim world regards Europe as a place of freedom and equality, where Muslims have largely shared in a better life. Economics above all determine voting by the feet – immigrants continue to pour into Europe – but without the foundation of welcome labored for by Christian leaders over many decades, they might not be so eager to come.

Yet it is France’s niqab ban or Switzerland’s forbiddance of minarets that pervades common Muslim perception of Europe, aided by local polemicists. Has Murad’s prediction failed, that European attention to Muslim immigrant needs would reflect positively on Christianity and foster reconciliation? Slomp demurs that over this same time period the position of indigenous Christians in the Middle East has not improved. He takes no position on Muslim world reciprocity towards Europe, at least in this essay.

Yet this question highlights the seductive danger of polemics. ‘We’ are better than ‘they’ is the lens through which it is asked. The superiority of self and kin is inherent to human nature; Christian leaders have demonstrated the spirit of their faith is to overcome it.

Service, welcome, equality, and love – this is what the Europe Christian leaders have sought to build. In dialogue with Muslims, they may just find the ‘other’ intends the same. Jansen may doubt, but it is only through engagement that truth is discovered. Faith demands such risk; it is the salve that undoes the poison.

This essay was first published in Arab West Report in February 2012.

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Is Islam Essentially Violent?

Islam and Violence

Dutch scholar Johannes Jansen contributed an essay – ‘The Religious Roots of Muslim Violence’ (opens in a Word document) – to a 2011 anthology entitled, ‘Terrorism: Ideology, Law, and Policy’. In it he makes the case that violence and terrorism are part and parcel of the Islamic religion, traceable to its root sources at every level of sharia construction. Jansen’s scouring of the sources is admirable, and he launches several challenges to an irenic understanding of Islam. Unfortunately, he gives short shrift to worthy counterarguments, instead presenting the reader conclusions deemed unassailable, established on the basis of his insight. While his insight is formidable, it is not conclusive. As a scholar he would do well to simply present both sides.

Johannes Jansen
Johannes Jansen

That Jansen does not is unfortunate, since it bathes his text in a bias which obscures a viable link between violence and Islam. Desiring to damn Islam in its entirety, he allows a critic to dismiss his work given its failure to admit other interpretations. Jansen instead takes upon himself the role of mujtahid (one who interprets) and throws down the gauntlet as well as any extremist scholar or caller to jihad. The only difference lies in condemnation versus approval.

This text will first present the legitimate challenges marshaled by Jansen, then demonstrate some of the ways he overstates his case, and close with a selection of examples where his argumentation is simply faulty, and at times, dismissive. A serious scholar of Islam would do well to outright refute many of his judgments; this review will suffice to proceed from a generalist’s knowledge. The reader is encouraged to lend his or her own fruits of study.

Difficult Matters

Moving sequentially through the text of Jansen, the first example of a difficult challenge lies in the verse of 9:30 in the Qur’an. The reference is to the delusion of Jews and Christians in imagining that God could have a son. This idea is met with an anathema – ‘God fight them’. Jansen notes that such a verse would make friendly religious dialogue difficult between Muslims and Christians, knowing that such a curse is leveled in the text of the oft-supposed friendly partner.

Later Jansen accuses Islam of dehumanization of its enemies. In verse 5:60 God is said to have turned some Jews into monkeys and pigs. This accusation is often heard among Muslims when they chant against Israel, for example. Also in 8:55 unbelievers are labeled ‘the worst of all beasts’. Indeed, it is much easier to oppose and kill those who are not given respect for their humanity.

Jansen then moves to consider the life of the prophet, referring to 33:21 in which Muhammad is declared to be an ‘excellent pattern’ for those who hope in God. He then goes on to describe how

Muhammad and his men raided their neighbours, captured these, and sold them into slavery. Mohammed and his men robbed travellers and caravans, and assassinated critics of their behaviour. According to the Muslim sources themselves, Muhammad and his men migrated from Mecca to Medina, but once there they rewarded the inhabitants of Medina by killing a large number of them. These sources themselves report how Muhammad beheaded 700 Medinese Jews, on the flimsiest of excuses.

This text is noted here with a contempt that belies the objectivity of a scholar, and each of these incidents listed is able to receive an explanation from Muslim historians. Yet Jansen’s argument is listed in this section not for its specifics, but its reference to Muhammad as an ‘excellent pattern’. Putting aside Jansen’s bias, there are aspects of Muhammad’s life that offend modern sensibilities and morality. These are a worthy field to consider linkages between Islam and violence.

Throughout his text Jansen brings up many of the oft-cited references in the Qur’an to warfare, fighting, and killing. These will be dealt with conceptually in the next section. Yet it is interesting to note here a commendation given by the prominent Azhar University in Cairo for a definition of jihad found in an English language guide to sharia law, called ‘The Reliance of the Traveler’. Jihad is often defended, correctly, as first an internal struggle against the self. Yet here Jansen notes the reference declares

Jihad means to go to war against non-Muslims (…). The scriptural basis for jihad (…) is such Koranic verses as: (1) ‘Fighting is prescribed for you’ (Koran 2:216); (2) ‘Slay them wherever you find them’ (Koran 4:89); (3) ‘Fight the idolaters utterly’ (Koran 9:36); and such hadiths as the one related by Bukhari and Muslim that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said ‘I have been commanded to fight people until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah’ (…) and the hadith reported by Muslim ‘To go forth in the morning or evening to fight in the path of Allah is better than the whole world and everything in it.’

The challenge is not necessarily in giving nuance to these verses, but the fact that as eminent and generally moderate an institution as the Azhar has endorsed this reading of jihad.

Contested Interpretations

It is noteworthy that in twenty pages of text Jansen is only able to bring the above arguments to bear that do not receive immediate pause, at least in the eyes of this reviewer. Far more numerous is the evidence he draws from Islam that does indeed ask fair questions of the religion, but then shields the reader from alternate viewpoints. Again, the summation will proceed sequentially.

Jansen begins his argument by stating the proscribed penalty for apostasy in Islamic sharia law is death. He does not demonstrate this factually, but refers to the aforementioned ‘Reliance of the Traveler’ and quotes from the Egyptian judge Muhammad al-Ghazali who testified the murder of accused apostate Farag Foda was only to be classified as an ‘offense’ under sharia.

Indeed, the standard Muslim judgment against apostasy is death, and the offense against human and religious rights is valid. Yet other scholars condemn this interpretation through a variety of forms. One method is to understand that during the time of the prophet, affiliation with Islam was akin to the modern concept of citizenship in a nation. Apostasy, then, is equated with treason – a crime punishable by death in many modern nations. Given that this relationship no longer applies, apostasy in the contemporary sense does not merit death.

Another path of diffusing the absolutism of apostasy punishments is to recall Muhammad dealt with apostates from Islam during his life, and did not order universally their execution. Listing these two critiques does not infer the validity of textual and historical exegesis; this is a matter for Muslim scholars to decide. Rather, the point is simply to note their existence, even if a minority interpretation. Jansen fails to do so.

Jansen then critiques what he understands to be an undue Western sympathy for Islam, given that many have accepted the idea of religion as an expression of the Golden Rule. This is faulty, he argues, bringing 48:29 as evidence: ‘Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, those with him are violent (ashiddaa’) against unbelievers, compassionate amongst themselves.’ (Richard Bell’s translation)

The issue of translation in Islam is very tricky, and certain Muslim authored ‘interpretations’ of the Qur’an into English cover over issues which might offend Western sensibilities. Here, however, Jansen chooses a translation that makes his point but overstates his case. Ashiddaa’ can also be rendered as severe, strong, harsh, or powerful, though violent is possible. A more direct word for violent – ‘aneef – is not employed.

Even so, the double standard certainly betrays the essence of the Golden Rule, which is Jansen’s overall point. Yet he could have maintained this tension, identifying a source text which Muslim violence can summon, while also quoting from 3:159, ‘By the mercy of God, you dealt with them gently. And had you been severe and harsh-hearted, they would have ran away from about you; so pass over (their faults), and ask (God’s) forgiveness for them.’ This text refers to Muhammad’s dealings with a man who had killed many Muslims. When apprehended, he was treated as a guest, fed, and freed. Such treatment accords also with a hadith in which Muhammad declared, ‘He who is not merciful to others, will not be treated mercifully’ (Muslim 73:42).

Again, these examples do not undo the double standard given by Jansen, but they keep the reader from assuming Islam to be only as he describes. Jansen would have done well to provide them.

Jansen then moves into the controversial Qur’anic verses which either order Muslims to kill (2:191, 4:89, 4:91, 9:5) or to fight (2:10, 2:216, 4:74, 9:119) the unbelievers. He refers to the well known commentary of al-Jalalayn to confirm the violent nature of these verses. Next he heads off a predictable rebuttal by 2:256: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’, and 109:5: ‘You have your religion and I have mine’, by bringing in the concept of abrogation. Islam commonly understands that verses revealed later void the application of earlier revelation. He states,

All standard and authoritative Muslim commentaries on the Koran, without exception, hold these two peaceful and reassuring fragments to be repealed and ‘abrogated’ by the later ‘verse of the sword’, Koran 9:5.

Having established the permissibility of fighting and killing unbelievers, Jansen seeks to establish two pernicious modern applications: Assassination and terrorism. Concerning the former he refers to 5:44 in which a leader who does not apply the laws God provided is labelled an unbeliever. Since he is from the community of believers, he is therefore an apostate, and as such, worthy of death. Jansen refers to the ancient commentator Ibn Kathir, the modern ideologue Sayyid Qutb, and contemporary preacher Sheikh Abdel Hamid Kishk of Egypt.

As per terrorism, he references 8:60 in which Muslims are commanded to ‘terrorize’ the enemy. He then returns to the Azhar to refute the idea this was only a concept to be employed during history. The former head of the Azhar, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, is quoted in his commentary stating the verses apply ‘first of all [to] the pagans of Mecca’. ‘First of all’, Jansen argues, signifies the beginning of a longstanding and commanded practice.

The seed to nuance these perspectives is provided by Jansen himself. He quotes a 1968 gathering of Cairo scholars to state 8:60 is equivalent to the Roman maxim, ‘If you wish for peace, prepare for war.’ Jansen even says, ‘They may be right.’

Whether they are right or not is worthy for debate, but though Jansen proceeds to provide what he calls ‘the standard Muslim denial and defense’ (to be given in the next section), he does not return to this very basic explanation. Muhammad began his ministry by calling to a religion, but the interpretation is clearly possible that he ended it by establishing a state. Commands to fight and kill, then, can be understood as a civil action akin to modern warfare. Even modern warfare can be condemned, and the including of religion complicates the matter considerably. Nevertheless, these verses can be understood as combat, and not as inquisition.

Furthermore, many Islamic scholars state that warfare is the domain of the state alone, which must abide by numerous regulations, including the duty to keep peace with a non-Muslim who does not oppose you. Therefore, while in war it is common practice to ‘terrorize’ the enemy through ‘shock and awe’, for example, this is legitimate only through proper and regulated channels, not through individual action.

Individual or small group action is also associated with assassination attempts. Muslim scholars need to, and have, refuted the interpretation of 5:44 as a call to kill a less-than-faithful Muslim leader. First of all the clear context of the verse applies to Jewish leaders who failed to apply the Torah. Jansen notes this, but calls again upon Kishk to argue that if true for Jews how much more true for Muslims, who have been given sharia law by which to govern. Yet the bulk of Sunni Muslim history has held that a ruler is to be obeyed and Muslims must not declare each other to be infidels, unless such unbelief is clearly advertised. Such assassination attempts, they warn, threaten to return Islam to its early days when extremist groups tore the community apart. This minority reading has now returned with an equal threat. The legitimacy of interpretation is for Muslims to decide, but Jansen makes no reference to where the burden of proof lies, or even that a burden against his argument exists.

The same critique applies to his statements about abrogation. Where he declares that all commentators agree about verses of the sword abrogating verses of tolerance, it would be well to check his sources. That the verses of the sword are later in timeframe than verses of tolerance is not disputed, but the issue of abrogation is not at all clear. Some scholars find only a handful of verses in the Qur’an to be abrogated, others find large swaths of its content. It is simply not true that a uniform opinion on abrogation exists in Islam, though as a concept it is accepted. Application, however, is disputed, which is a fact Jansen does not simply ignore, he obfuscates.

Last to be considered briefly is the extension of the argument to the individual Muslim. Given that jihad is a duty to be carried out in warfare, and furthermore that since the Islamic caliphate no longer exists, it is now incumbent on smaller associations to further this cause. Jansen describes how this has happened without providing rationale why it is Islamically necessary to happen.

Still, he quotes prominent scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi who states concerning suicide operations: ‘The one who carries out a martyrdom operation does not think of himself. He sells himself to Allah in order to buy Paradise in exchange.’ While this opinion should be studied in context, it appears Qaradawi describes the rationale of the martyrdom-seeker, and does not clearly provide license for his interpretation.

Failures in Argumentation

While sections one and two acknowledge the excellent, if insufficient, study Jansen has given to the Islamic sources, this final section highlights some of the ways in which he betrays his own effort. While only a few examples represent error, there are quite a few statements overvaluing his contribution. These will be followed by an unhealthy number of examples carrying  a regrettable dismissive attitude toward opposing views.

Some of the errors are actually misleading use of rhetoric. For example Jansen notes how the fact of death for an apostate acts as a disincentive to advertise one’s disbelief in Islam. While certainly correct, he proceeds to state, ‘All statistics on the number of Muslims in a region or period [are] unreliable.’ With this broad stroke he renders meaningless the work of professional statisticians upon the assumption that Muslims everywhere hold to their faith out of fear of death. Unfortunately, Jansen offers no evidence to buttress this assumption.

Similar is the critique he levels at scholars and politicians for not understanding the essential violent nature of Islam. Were this properly comprehended, they would have prevented Muslims from ‘invading’ their countries. The word invade infers an organized plan, while overlooking the demographic fact that most Muslims in Europe, at least, originally were recruited to serve in low wage service industries to compensate for a relatively low continental population growth. Their increase in population share is a serious issue for European politicians today, but to label their presence an invasion is an ugly, if not deliberate, rhetorical error.

This may be true as well for Jansen’s denigration of the Qur’an for labeling Jews as ‘pigs’. A careful look at 5:60 shows God turned some Jews into apes and pigs, yet Jansen goes on to say:

It is clear that an enemy about whom Islam teaches that God himself calls him an ape, a donkey, a swine, a dog or just an animal, has no human rights. It is only proper to terrorize such subhuman unpersons.

This example leads well into a number of instances where Jansen establishes a point through the force of his own insistence. Is it indeed ‘clear’ that ‘it is only proper’ to mistreat the above mentioned groups? Is there no other possible recourse in all of Islam? Does logic dictate the necessity of agreement with Jansen’s pronouncements?

Elsewhere Jansen states, without reference to studies or statistics, that ‘large numbers’ of Muslims believe specific war passages in the Qur’an are meant to be generalized. Furthermore, it is ‘widely understood’ that Islam teaches to kill unbelievers if the cost is not too great for the Muslim community. Of course, ‘Muslims believe that outsiders hate Islam,’ which, ‘can only be understood as echoes of the fear and distrust Muslims themselves harbour against the adherents of other religions.’ The proof? ‘Printed testimonies from within the Muslim world abundantly illustrate that in general Muslims (with individual exceptions, one hopes) distrust and hate the West.

Jansen’s parenthesis in the previous example illustrates more than just his overstatements, it also reveals his dismissive bias. ‘One hopes’ there are Muslims who do not hate the West? With how many has he spoken, that he sees this as such an impossibility?

Further sarcasm is seen when he posits the chance that what is understood as terrorism is actually to be regarded as legitimate resistance. He says:

This needs to be researched seriously and extensively. Such research should definitely not be omitted or be neglected, no matter how enormous the task will be. It would be a huge project indeed, stretching out from Northern Nigeria to Chechnya, from the Darfur to East-Timor and Bali, and from Madrid, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris and London to New York.

His highlight on ‘extensively’ is made moot through listing the sites of recent terrorist activity. As before, Jansen’s research is far too serious to utilize such mocking claims. He is not finished, however.

After listing the many verses which demonstrate the Qur’an’s instructions to fight and kill, Jansen exasperates, ‘Someone who is not convinced by these verses will not be convinced by more or even much more of the same.’ Furthermore, Muslims who seek to present an alternate interpretation of their faith by emphasizing verses of tolerance ‘forget to explain’ these have been abrogated.

Failing to recognize their effort as legitimate apologetics, Jansen proceeds to give what he calls the ‘standard Muslim denial and defence’ of their religion – in all its flimsiness. The first is to state that only perfect Arabic speakers can interpret the Qur’an, and that it is Western hatred which drives their criticism. The second is to dismiss the statements of clerical leaders, as these do not represent the people. The third and final technique is to ridicule Westerners who rely on the statements of misinformed young men involved in terrorism.

Jansen admits there is merit behind these defenses, but are they the only ones? Written by a non-Muslim, this text has presented numerous challenges to Jansen’s interpretations. Are none of these worthy to be found in the writings of ‘standard’ Muslim apologists? Jansen builds a straw man, and delights in knocking him down.


Much Western opinion of Islam is divided into two camps. One side finds the religion to be peaceful in essence despite misinformed extremists. The other finds the religion to be violent in essence despite the masses of ordinary Muslims who do not sufficiently understand their faith. As with most dichotomies, reality is often found in the middle.

Though Jansen places himself among the scholars of the second grouping, this text does not fault his essential questions. It is clear that there are violent source texts and examples within Islam. Yet it is also clear there is an impetus toward peace and tolerance. It is right and just for both Muslims and non-Muslims to interpret sources to determine what is the core of Islam.

The fault of Jansen lies in his failure to nuance his argument. His was not a short magazine article; it was a twenty page thesis. There was ample room to both display his conviction about a violent norm and present significant Muslim counterarguments.

His failure to do so is odd given his conviction. If Islam is essentially violent, would Jansen not wish to highlight and promote the many Muslims who seek to ground their faith on a foundation of peace? Are all who do so deceivers, wishing to delude the West to their true intentions? Can there not be validity to their wholly Islamic arguments?

This last question is the essential one. The crux of the issue is not the academic exegesis of Islam, however worthy. It is the social and cultural acceptance of interpretation that must speak to the hearts of Muslims the world over. Will violent verses be found anachronistic in the modern age, or will they define a coming renewed civilizational struggle? It is only within Islam, among Muslims, this answer can be found. Alternate viewpoints are rife, and often in competition.

Jansen may be able to demonstrate the weight of evidence – both in historic sharia understanding and in popular consciousness – lies with violent and jihadist Islam. What he will be unable to accomplish is to demonstrate this interpretation is correct. Islam is first and foremost a religion, and religions, while possessing vast storehouses of conserving tradition, are also adept at drawing from these storehouses to adapt according to the realities of the age. It is as wrong to state that Islam will adapt peacefully as it is to assert it will not. That adaptation is possible, however, is a demonstrated historical fact.

Islam, particularly in its Arab context, is before a potentially great adaptation from Morocco to the Gulf, as the masses demonstrate a desire to shed their current leadership. Whether or not the Arab Spring represents conflict or cooperation with the West is an open question. Prominent among the determining factors will be the emerging interpretation of Islam. Jansen is right to ask his questions; the answers are not nearly as fated as he assumes.

This essay was first published in Arab West Report in February 2012.


Is Islam by Nature Political?

From Ahram Online, an op-ed arguing on behalf of Islamists, that Islam is essentially political:

A final point. Some of the opposition figures keep invoking the term “political Islam,” as if the term were a source of shame to Islamists.

Well, political Islam is not the invention of the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists. It is rather solidly rooted in Islam and its holy scripture, the Quran.

I am not going to discuss certain arguments made by anti-Islam secularists who claim that the rule of Sharia is not a must upon Muslims and that Muslims might opt for modern Western-style democracy without violating the tenets of their faith. These arguments are quite nonsense, even for first grade Muslim children.

But I do want to point out that one cannot reject political Islam as a matter of principle, without rejecting Islam itself.

Yes, one might disagree with certain Islamist modalities, behaviours and interpretations. We all reject violence and terror committed in the name of religion. And we all would like to see a kinder and gentler practice of Islam everywhere.

But we must never allow ourselves as Muslims to compromise the main principles of our faith in order to appear more in tune with the age, and more acceptable to the West.

As a non-Muslim, it is never wise to argue what Islam is or is not. This, ultimately, is for Muslims to decide. But just as many demonize Islam saying it is a terrorist and illiberal religion, others assert the opposite, making it a personal faith akin to the Christianity of the West.

Religion and culture easily bleed together; certainly many Western Muslims do practice a personal faith. This voice, however, asserts that Islam is inherently political. It may be (and is) able to live peacefully as a minority faith, but it is not content here.

Consider a similar example: Does the word ‘Jew’ represent a faith or an ethnicity? Many Jews are agnostic or atheist; some convert to Christianity yet still consider themselves Jews. Perhaps there are few converts to Judaism outside of the ethnicity, but the line is sufficiently blurred to be confusing. Are you an anti-Semite if you deny the historicity of Moses?

Along the same lines, is Islam a faith or an ideology? Many Muslims are non-political, but does the faith demand more? Those who have claimed the mantle of leadership in the Arab Spring overwhelmingly say yes. Do they distort their religion? Or, do they compromise the many western Muslims who are forced to defend themselves from polemicists suspicious of them as a fifth column?

Judaism was birthed as the religion of a chosen family, marked by circumcision, wary of outsiders. Islam was birthed as the religion of a state, marked by confessions of loyalty, enveloping the outsider. Each one today houses the paradoxes of its emergence.

Can anyone attempt a similar consideration of Christianity?

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Interview with MB Guidance Bureau Member Abdel Rahman al-Barr

Abdel Rahman al-Barr

A few days ago I posted an article I wrote for Lapido Media exploring the religious motivation and justification for protesting an insult to Islam. Much of the perspective rested on the answers of Abdel Rahman al-Barr, a member of the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood and a specialist in the Islamic sharia.

Due to the events al-Barr was unavailable for a face-to-face interview, but graciously provided his time in answering my written questions. For deeper understanding of the subject treated in the article, here is the transcript in full:

  • A popular chant during the protest was: ‘With our souls and our blood we will redeem you, oh Islam!’ What does ‘blood’ imply, and how will it ‘redeem’ Islam?

This phrase means the speaker is ready to give his life for the sake of his religion, willing that his blood may flow in its defense. If it becomes necessary he will enter a military confrontation to defend Islam even if he must face being killed or martyred in the path of God.

  • The film was clearly offensive to Islam. But what does Islam teach about defending the religion against insult? Even if peaceful, why are such demonstrations religiously necessary?

Religion is one of the sanctities that man will protect and defend with all he has, even if this leads to giving his life. In the case of this offensive film it is necessary to announce refusal, condemnation, and anger with the most powerful expressions. We request the government with allowed this film to appear – that is, the United States of America – to prevent [its showing] and to hold those who made it accountable, as they have instigated hatred and incited animosity between peoples. Expressing this refusal is a religious obligation, because Islam requires the Muslim to reject error and seek to change it with his hand, if he is able. If he cannot he must reject it with his tongue, and demonstrations are one of the ways to do so.

  • During the demonstrations, some called the Copts of the Diaspora, especially those involved in the film, ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’. What does Islam teach about the use of insults against those who insult it?

Those who use such phrases are likely from the common people – not scholars – who were pushed by their anger from the enormity of the crime. But Islamic teachings call for the use of good phrases which do not insult. God the exalted said in the Qur’an: ‘Speak well to people’, ‘Say to those who worship me, “Speak what is good”’, ‘Return the evil with that which is good’, and ‘Return what is good if there is animosity between you’.

  • The Qur’an states in al-Nahl, 125: ‘Invite to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching and argue with them in the best manner.’ Even peaceful protests seem to diverge from this, and open the door for many to express anger poorly. How do demonstrations, though politically legal, help shape an Islamic morality? How should anger be expressed in Islam?

We must know that free demonstrations are a new experience for our people, as the repressive regimes dealt with them extremely harshly, to not allow them. Because of this, until now the culture of demonstration remains disfigured for many. Maybe this will improve in the future, but the careful observer will note that demonstrations organized by the Muslim Brotherhood are better disciplined even in the slogans and phrases used. This is because Islamic morality is moderate in both satisfaction and anger. Powerful expressions of anger must respect justice and avoid triviality. The Qur’an says: ‘God does not like the public mention of evil except by one who has been wronged’. So if a man is oppressed he may use forceful phrases to express this oppression, but without triviality or debasement.

  • Almost no Americans had ever heard of this film until Egypt began to demonstrate against it. To what degree to Muslim religious leaders bear fault for the excesses of these protests, as the Brotherhood called originally for escalation?

Religious scholars are not the ones who began the incitement, and they had no means to prevent it. Those who incited people were some activists who knew of it from the internet, and from here the common people began talking about it. It is natural the scholars could not stay silent in the face of this rejected crime. Personally, if it was in my power I would not have given this subject any importance because it is a vile work. Its producers do not posses human decency or creative value, and the film has no artistic merit. But the new media in its modern form diffuses the insignificant to work up the people – this is what happened with this vile film lacking creative value. Of course, the expansive publication via media had the largest influence on the common people, stirring them up and giving attention to this insulting film.

Thanks to Amr al-Masry for translating the questions into Arabic; any errors in translating the answers are my own, with graciousness asked specifically for the verses from the Qur’an.

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: The Innocence of Muslims


Give Egypt the grace to get out of the moment. Literally speaking, bring peace to troubled areas, give peace to troubled hearts. End this contagion to protect lives, property, and the reputation of Islam.

Figuratively speaking, help Egypt and the world to see the big picture. Encouraging transitions are underway across the region. Dictators have been deposed and the people have a voice. The transition is not without significant struggle, however, and has opened up the fault lines of society. Film or no film, sincere or exploited, these protests cannot obscure there is much good at work in Egypt and elsewhere.

The big picture is also that God can take care of himself. May those who are righteously aggrieved remember God the Merciful, and so imitate. Comfort all who call on you, keeping them from turning against each other, or the other. May your purposes for Egypt be fulfilled, among both the both the calm and the furious.

But the small picture requires your attention as well, God. This film appears produced for trouble and trouble alone. Whatever legal right they own, your law goes far deeper to judge intention and result. Hold them accountable, God, and rebuke. Spoil any influence they may seek in American politics.

If for trouble, the trouble was shared. Manipulation owns no nationality, and surely some Egyptians are guilty of fanning the flames. Both have exploited religion for evil ends; both show contempt for the faith of normal Muslims. One aims to offend, the other to enrage. Hold them accountable as well, and keep them from a vital share in the Egypt to come.

Continue your grace between Egyptian Muslims and Christians; thank you for the wisdom that has kept them together. May such grace multiply between Arabs and Westerners. Prevent the world from hardening into ill views of the other. May all differences be admitted and discussed, and may the right prevail. But may all be transcended in respect and relationship.

May these fires soon extinguish; may they spread no further.

May love instead consume the hearts of men, even toward those who hate, insult, and damage. Punish, God, but redeem and restore.


Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Misunderstanding Plagues the US Embassy Protest over anti-Muhammad Film: A First-Hand Account

As clashes continue in the areas surrounding the US Embassy, I have had opportunity to publish my account and analysis from the original incident on EgyptSource. Please click here for the article in full, and excerpts follow below:

The sad spectacle on display at the US Embassy in Cairo on September 11 shows nearly everyone in a poor light. Sadder still is that most parties involved acted from a sense of virtue, but misunderstanding and prejudice corroded the good intentions.

I next proceed to describe some of the background events as well as the misunderstandings on the part of the US Embassy and US media. Next follows perhaps the most crucial observation I gained:

The stranger inference is that the embassy was not surrounded from the beginning. The protest was announced in advance, and yet Egyptian riot police were present throughout the demonstration. Yet it was the army, absent the entire time, which secured the premises.

The US Embassy complex is surrounded by a high wall lining almost entirely the adjacent street. The entrance is located in the center of the wall. Black clad police with helmets and shields lined the wall to the right of the entrance, but yielded the left side to protesters. Essam, an older Salafi protester, told me the police deferred to the ‘Islamists’ to keep the youth under control.

Next follows viewpoints expressed by some of the participants, including these:

Consistently the crowd shouted, ‘With our lives and blood we will redeem you, oh Islam.’ Muhammad, another son of the Blind Sheikh, explained, “For any offense against Islam, the Muslim has the right to defend himself against the one who says it, and this slogan displays his love of his religion.

“Everything has its time and place. It makes no sense to issue simple good preaching during jihad. If someone is attacking you, you resist and fight back, you do not just say a good word.”

Another participant in the protests, Mustafa, who had returned to Egypt after living fifteen years in Brooklyn, commented further. “Those Copts making this film should be killed.”

The sad fact is that so few involved in this episode, whether gathered at surrounding the embassy or abroad, exhibit a will to understand and appreciate the other. For his part, Muhammad Abdel Rahman acknowledged the legitimacy of debate. “A Copt in Egypt may stand publically and state he does not believe in Muhammad. But there is a difference between discussion and insult.”

Yet where is the line to be drawn? What Muhammad might allow Mustafa might murder. Both act from the virtue of principle, yet each is open to the condemnation of fellow Muslims. Such difference in interpretation is witnessed in all actors.

The transition to conclusion involves weighing each actor on the basis of their motivation from virtue, only to be spoiled by misunderstanding. Of course, the virtue of each may be completely false, which is also considered. I end looking ahead to tomorrow, a day seeming increasingly ominous:

The test will come on Friday, when Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have called for more demonstrations against the film. Meanwhile, their political arm the Freedom and Justice Party, described the film as “a failed attempt to stir strife between Muslims and Copts.”

These rallies will only cement the ill image many Arabs and Westerners have of one another. The former see the latter as irreligious libertines, while Muslims get labeled as oversensitive fanatics. It is a sad exchange, overcome only through awareness, acceptance, understanding, and respect. Will wiser heads prevail? Humankind is capable of great virtue, but it is easily marred.

Perhaps nothing of significance will take place, but the fear is that there is significant political capital to play with. Demonizing America has long been a feature of Egyptian domestic policy, even while official relations are maintained, even strengthened. President Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood again face the choice to imitate Mubarak, or change the political culture of Egypt.

But if they change, in what direction? Better, or worse?

Please click here for the full text.

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Salafis, Muslim Youth Protest anti-Muhammad Film at US Embassy

To mark September 11, Muslims in Egypt stormed the US Embassy.

Actually, it is not that simple. Certain Copts resident in America produced an amateur film purporting to expose the frails and falsities of Muhammad, and advertised its release for September 11. Word carried back to Egypt, of course, prompting protest from religious institutions, Muslim and Christian alike. Salafi Muslims in particular called for a protest at the US Embassy, and they were joined by hardcore soccer fans in denouncing the film as well as the US government for allowing it to be made. The US Embassy, for its part, issued an official condemnation, calling the effort an abuse of freedom of expression.

Several thousand Egyptians gathered at the entrance of the embassy, falling into roughly two categories. While it was clear all participated, bearded Salafi Muslims largely stood peacefully, while the soccer youth led vociferous, and playful, chants. It was the latter which scaled the walls of the embassy, pulled down the US flag, and burned it.

Later, they also draped a black Islamic flag over the signage of the embassy, above its entrance. These flags were in abundance and resemble the standard used by al-Qaeda. It is al-Qaeda, however, which appropriated the black flag from earlier in Islamic history, which was used in Muhammad’s campaigns. It bears the Islamic creed: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his apostle. Its use at this rally does not imply the presence of al-Qaeda.

I did not witness the US flag being desecrated, but Egyptian security was present in abundance and permitted the action. I was told that the Islamic contingent of the protest calmed the youth and did not permit a more serious storming of embassy grounds, if this was even intended. Security seemed to rely on these Islamists to make certain things did not get out of hand.

The atmosphere was charged, but calm and peaceful. Even so, offensive chants were issued and questionable signs displayed. Foreign Copts were called ‘pigs’, and the Jews were warned about the soon return of Muhammad’s army. One sign declared, ‘We are all bin Laden, you (Coptic) dogs of the diaspora,’ another celebrated the heroes of September 11, asking God’s mercy upon them. Please click here for a brief video of the protest, and pictures follow below.

I would not say this demonstration was representative of Egyptian society; several thousand people are a small scale protest. Yet dangerous ideas are afloat and society is yet in an unstable transition. I felt somewhat uncomfortable in their midst and kept a low profile, yet spoke with some and suffered no ill reception. Afterwards I spoke at length with some Islamists there I know well, and hope to convey their thoughts in a separate post, perhaps tomorrow.

Such is Egypt these days, for better or for worse. May God bless them.

Black flag draped over US Embassy sign

Youth Leading Chants

Translation of graffiti: Muhammad is God’s Apostle

Protest banner

Some signs were in English for foreign understanding

Calling for Egyptian nationality to be revoked from foreign Copts

Some Copts were present in solidarity with offended Muslims

Translation: We are All bin Laden; continues underneath, You (Coptic) Dogs of the Diaspora

Translation: God have Mercy on the Heroes of September 11

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